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Jimmy Lyons - The Box Set

Charles Walker, Sudden Thoughts

Jimmy Lyons - perhaps unjustly - has gone down as jazz' master of the fragment. Partially for his compelling contrast to Cecil Taylor's fusillade of notes - working his Bird-like melodic fragments for maximum effect; breaking them down with short, repeated blasts, quick lyrical curlicues, and his propulsive use of sudden rests - but even more so for the way his recording career comes down to today's audience in tantalizing bits and pieces.
There are the Hat Hut discs, those on Black Saint, and a number of masterpieces alongside Taylor, but there has never been extensive domestic documentation of Lyons. His approach sitting as an alternate history in the long spiritual progeny of Charlie Parker, it stands up as unique, flexible, and forthright of one as that of Eric Dolphy or Anthony Braxton, and has always deserved better treatment. Perhaps his imaginative empathy and the humility of his in-the-moment, of-the-group ethos bound him to be the behind the scenes Strayhorn to his own ultra-modern Ellington (when Taylor told Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come, I often wondered if he was referring to the jabbing, heart-rending fragments Lyons laced into the fabric of the pianist's furious tidal waves of sound).

Since his death in 1986, it seemed our collective memory of the altoist was to be woven out of his piecemeal recorded legacy, a life lived and remembered in sudden bursts, incomplete glimpses, and gorgeous moments of innovation. It almost, almost goes without saying that this five disc box of previously unissued material is the great achievement of this last year's reissue landscape. At times delicate, demanding, or almost uncomfortably direct, Lyons' playing is consistently creative, and the box as a whole patches together shard-like pieces into a rounded portrait, rescuing a legacy desperately in need of such work.
The set spans a solid decade of his work as a leader, all in live performance, and in a variety of formats - an intriguing solo show, in an early quartet with trumpeter Raphe Malik, in a trio with bass and drums, amidst a bass-less trio with bassoonist Karen Borca, and a later version of that trio augmented by William Parker. But perhaps it is most notable in that the increased focus on Lyons himself reveals number of the unifying elements of what makes his playing so powerful: his stubborn insistence on the possibilities of melodic development, his unique use of rests and their spontaneous emotional power (often as a storm thunders around him), and the tonal urgency of his phrases that sounds at once like an outburst and a resigned wail. But as with any musical master, the set also includes a number of moments where he recognizes these strengths and attempts to challenge the limitations of them, the danger of using them like crutches and falling into formulas.
Thus, even though he is most comfortable with another horn to echo, stagger, and interrupt his own melodic inventions, on disc 2 he works his way through two free-form jams accompanied only by bass and drums, forcing him to concentrate on the rhythmic force of his phrasing, with its wily, shard-like fragments, and the flurries and fanciful, lyrical flights that surround them.

Or so that even though these fragments are most effective when flying coolly atop a headlong percussive base, disc 3 isprimarily devoted to an unaccompanied solo set, where he relies instead on the gradual accumulation of his melodic ideas and unique juxtapositions of tonal colors to move his compositions along.
Still, strengths are strengths, and Lyons indeed shines most brightly when fluttering lightly alongside Malik's muscular tone, or in the telling contrast between his short melodic kernels that bend bar lines ever so slightly and Borca's unfurling streams of notes that trample them with imaginative abandon.

Overall, however, what arises across these (again) fragmentary ten years is the consistency of his conception - the rhythmic surprises, melodic ingenuity, and emotional honesty of bebop re(dis)covered for a world free from its harmonic constraints; if "Now's the Time," then Lyons was quietly and humbly bringing Parker's Now into the real-time possibilities of Ayler's melodic repository Coltrane's rhythmic regeneration, and the frenetic, spontaneous logic absorbed sponge-like during his time with Cecil. All of which is to say that Lyons was the rare technician who laid bare his roots in nearly every measure of his music, and yet - through his choice of companions, his compositional frameworks, and his imaginative reactions - was never hemmed in by them; an extension of the saxophone lineage stretching back to Ornette Coleman to Charlie Parker to Lester Young that claimed the Free in Free Jazz was a verb and not an adjective. Perhaps Young is a good comparison - both went against the rhythmic and tonal grain of their contemporaries, and both were most heavily influenced by predecessors largely unfashionable within their musical milieus (Young's fondness for Frankie Trumbauer is oft-repeated).

The quartet sides with Malik, which take up disc 1, are the clearest example of this tendency in Lyons' work. Recorded in September of 1972 at Sam Rivers' famous Rivbea loft, Lyons, Malik, bassist Hayes Burnett, and drummer Sydney Smart range and rove their way through a handful of Lyons' tunes, sticking largely to the full-bore loft aesthetic. But it is the unique intensity of the saxophonist's conception that makes the session stand out - this conception makes him a true leader, as the other members of the group adjust to fit within it. Most impressive in this regard is Malik, who calms down his fiery attack to follow some of Lyons' more genial melodic inventions, sometimes repeating fragments, sometimes jostling them with rippling extensions, sometimes laying out and letting Lyon's pregnant pauses gather hard-fought force. But he seems most inspired by the leader's unperturbed long tones, which cut Smart's frantic drumming to the bone with one well-turned, carefully-held note. On "Gossip," he echoes this technique from the end of Lyons' opening solo to slowly craft his own, which gives a molten muscularity to its subsequent explosions and climaxes. But the leader's vision permeates nearly every corner of this fine disc: couched within the concentrated propulsion of his fragmentary, architectural lines and their lyrical turn-backs, all three of his companions are forced to quicker, more interactive reactions than the more self-indulgent excesses of the loft scene required. Thus the music's volcanic, relentless energy is coupled with blues- drenched resolutions on "Mr. 1-2-5 Street," or sustained with hovering tension on "Ballad One"; Lyons was never one to compromise, but his music demanded logic and a structural base for spontaneity.

That, indeed, is the magic of Lyons as it unfolds in stops and starts across these ten years - his razor-sharp logic the axis around which his melodic spontaneity rotates in sudden bits and lyrical pieces.

The solo set from April of 1981 is (notwithstanding the title of the opening track "Clutter") an uncluttered view of this cyclical process at work. Far more accessible than Braxton's For Alto, it is nevertheless a session the perfectionist side of Lyons probably wouldn't have dreamed of releasing; it is much too much the picture of a musician at work to satisfy his professed need for more mature statements. But this is also precisely why it is so valuable, for piecing together an idea of the altoist after the fact - unprovoked by another horn player, unhindered by the set propulsion of a rhythm section, Lyons steers clear of reinventing the wheel, instead focusing on the natural progression of his lines. Thus, in "Repertoire Riffin'," one can hear the way his short phrases are only fully powerful through the gravity of his sharp pauses; on "Clutter," one can follow the primary role emotional directness played in his approach, his fleet runs giving way to arching, legato resolutions and balladic quotes; on "Mary Mary Intro," one can hear him pushing the limits as he embraces guttural honks, oblique, angular turns, and quickly juxtaposed, contrasting rhythms, none of which he often incorporated into his work with Taylor, so as not to upset the balancing role his alto played in those raucous ensembles. Point is, the solo set - as a microcosm, or fragment, of the box - offers up a much fuller statement from a musician we are accustomed to hearing in tantalizing fragments. The stops and starts are an ever-present force throughout the entirety of the box - one might say, ironically, that they are the unifying element to such diverse formats - but unlike in his piecemeal appearances as a sideman, one here takes away some fullness of the way they were twisted, transformed, articulated, and motivated by his all-too-human imagination. Sidelines (unjust or not) are rarely, if ever, followed with this much regenerative attention to detail.

By the time one comes around to the inspired trio session from 1984, with Borca and drummer Paul Murphy, the logic, expansion, and flexible intensity of his brilliant fits and starts are rounded out by context, couched within the accumulated tendencies of his rigorous technique, open ears, and vibrant imagination. Fragments fit together with caulk, bebop bricks held by mortar, made into music for a new generation. And when it is held together in the right surroundings - like the date with Borca and Murphy - the results are a magisterial, inspired mess of logical abandon.

The box carries an appropriately hefty price tag, and so is probably not for casual listeners. But in its very limited edition (500 copies total), what a shame it would be for any of them to end up in a casual collection anyway. Because Lyons' music demands a listener at once logical and imaginative, and deserves one passionate enough to air this music regularly, inspect it, and expand their image of this brilliant improviser. Those listeners will not be disappointed by this fantastic bit of historical work - the sound quality is impressive on all but the last session (with William Parker), in particular when considering the circumstances under which the recordings were originally made.

As well, it comes with a phenomenal booklet which works as both biography and musical criticism, doing much of the work of rounding out the picture of Lyons, providing background, musicological analysis, and sociological context for his music. For a man who has come to us in stutters, whispers, and swirling, conflicted counter-statements (see Taylor's One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye), such a focused, unencumbered spotlight as this box - such a well-rounded statement - is a true embarrassment of riches. Much like Lyons' own rigorous approach to his musical heritage, every time a listener approaches this box they are bound to find a new development, an imaginative fillip, or a moment of raw, emotional power. And perhaps, in this spirit of sudden, surprising logical development, it is precisely these qualities in Lyons' music - his humility, his curiosity, his restless resolution of influence and innovation - that might make this set the perfect place for those new listeners to discover his music (never mind to satisfy the old faithful).

Like the mechanics of the most inspired Lyons solos, the set pieces together sometimes divergent, sometimes convergent fragments of a single (melodic, tonal, rhythmic) picture; jarring spaces and what comes between forging a more piercing whole, holes filled by the brilliant logic that surrounds them.

Ears tau(gh)t, technically, with expectation, this box time and again exceeds them.